How Toy Ad Vocabulary Reinforces Gender Stereotypes: Follow-Up

To say the response to my word cloud and LEGO posts has been overwhelming would be an understatement. The conversation that emerged, especially in response to the word cloud, was interesting and impassioned.

Consider this post a kind of wrap-up and a general response to some of the more commonly heard questions and criticisms. (Note that I addressed some of these points in the comments to the post but wanted to bring everything together here.)

One poster (barry) noted the potentially circular logic at play in my word cloud post. I pointed to the vocabulary in toy ads as being highly stereotyped, and he noted that the language reflects the nature of the toys: “boy’s toys are defined by the violent language, and violent language emerges from boy’s toys ads.” True enough. The words used in the ads are indicative of the toys’ traits—you would expect “battle” to emerge as a dominant word when many of the toys are about fighting.

In retrospect, I should have clarified that I was focusing on the marketing copy to highlight the gendered nature of many toys, as I did in my response to this poster: “By highlighting the words, I am trying to draw attention to the real issue: why do boys continue to be seen as interested only in things that smash, crash, and bash? The words here reflect the broader stereotypes held of boys—that they are aggressive, like a lot of noise and action, and are not suited to the more “domestic” toys targeted to girls.”

One of the themes that ran through some of the comments on both posts was that of nature vs. nurture—the idea that boys and girls are innately predisposed toward specific interests and behaviours (aggression and action for boys, nurturing for girls). A related theme was that marketing doesn’t matter a whole lot (I assume because gender differences are innate) and that I am reading too much into toy ads.

In response to both of these points, I defer to others with expertise in biology, sociology, and psychology.

  • Regarding gender differences being in-born, poster cpt.sanity wrote: “It has been repeatedly shown and is accepted as fact in modern psychology from Rogers onwards, that while sex is a biological fact, gender roles are sociologically determined, largely by peer pressure in early years and mediated by advertising and media images.”
  • Regarding the notion that toy marketing doesn’t matter, here is one response I wrote: “The impact of toy marketing on children has been discussed in many studies. One such study cites other research in stating that: “children are aware of the gendered portrayals in commercials and thus have learned the ‘appropriateness’ of toys through modeled behavior…[R]epeated exposure to these images contributes to the development of children’s conceptions of gender and their expected roles as men and women.” The authors of this article conduct their own study into the impact of nontraditional gender depictions and conclude that: “even after a brief exposure to nontraditional images both boys and girls were more likely to report that the toy advertised was for both boys and girls…If brief exposure to nontraditional images creates change…imagine what prolonged exposure could do for children’s beliefs and their behaviors.” (Pike, Jennifer and Nancy A. Jennings. “The effects of commercials on children’s perception of gender appropriate toy use.” Sex Roles 52, no. 1-2 (2005): 83-91.)”

Finally, there were many suggestions that this research be continued. As I noted in the introduction to the post, this was just a small exercise and a starting point. This is indeed a topic worthy of further examination and I intend to do so. I may publish some findings here as I complete them, but I intend to look at a much larger and more diverse sample, so it could take a while.

Thanks to everyone for the discussion.


Crystal Smith is the author of "The Achilles Effect" and "Boys, Sex & Media." Through her blog and social media channels, Crystal discusses current depictions of masculinity in popular culture and their potential impact on boys. Her work has been covered in The Boston Globe, Advertising Age, and Feministing, and she has appeared on HuffPost Live and The Roy Green Show.

14 thoughts on “How Toy Ad Vocabulary Reinforces Gender Stereotypes: Follow-Up

  1. Thankfully we have solid science to trump anything thrown up by psychology. Physics, chemistry, biology. These are real and tangible sciences. Psychology is in its infancy in comparison, stumbling to define itself before people realise it is a peripheral offshoot from biology.

    While phsychologists can make educated guesses and posit theories ad infinitum, I can point to male and female brain scans that exhibit totally different behaviours, largely due to their different construction. Hard evidence. Our brains are different, Ms Smith. You cannot escape this any more than I. Many benefits fall on the female side, and many fall on the male side. Evolutionary biologists will tell you that such differences actually help with the perpetuation of the species, due to inter- and intra-sex competition and rivalries. This has been the case for longer than you or I can fathom.

    A mother can do everything in her power to raise “genderless” sons who exhibit no “stereotypically male” behaviour… but ultimately their brains are wired in a certain manner they cannot escape. They’re attracted to healthy breasts and hips. They are more prone to aggression. They have better rotational spatial awareness and a predisposition to mathematics. They are physically stronger, have more Vitamin K and platelets in their bloodstream, have greater aerobic capacity, yet are more succeptible to infection and fewer white blood cells than their sisters. They access the right hemisphere of the brain to store emotions (girls go left) and have poorer recollective abilities.

    I could go on and on and on and on and on… but ultimately I imagine your retort will be that I’m talking biology, not gender?

    If you cannot see how such dramatic differences mean that we all cannot help but view the world through the lens of ‘male’ or ‘female’ then I can’t really do anything more. Before kids are exposed to their first peer or their first TV commercial or their first uncle buying them a baseball mitt, they are headed down a path that was laid out for them by countless generations of ancestors. The world is a much more interesting place for this fact, and those of us who choose to incorporate this fact into our modern lives are better for it…

    1. Shane, while I do agree with your larger point that hard-wired differences exist between the sexes vis-a-vis biology, I would not be so quick to dismiss the role of the environment and experience in shaping the way the brain develops and is structured at maturity. While brain scans can give the impression of hard facts regarding innate sex differences, I would argue that these differences on the scans in and of themselves say nothing about the source of gender roles. To do that, one needs to be able to rule out the effects of experience on these differences in neural architecture. For instance, wrt documented sex differences in visuospatial ability, it could be that (a) innate (potentially small) differences in ability give rise to differential levels of experience which in turn increase the gender gap on visuospatial ability, OR (b) stereotyped gender roles lead to differential levels of experience in activities requiring visuospatial skill. One can approximate statistical models to attempt to tease apart the effects of innate architectural differences and experience-related plasticity, but ultimately the hard data required to make the claims you are making is hard to come by (if you are aware of any, please do include some citations – I would be interested to see them). This is not to downplay the evolutionary advantage of sex differences, but rather to avoid premature conclusions about their source.

      A separate point here must be made regarding your disdain for the field of psychology. While I agree that the field has its flaws, and the signal/noise ratio in the data we (yes, I am a cognitive psychologist) deal with can often be laughable, I think you are mistaken in believing that psychology will ultimately be subsumed in biology. I encourage you to talk to neuroscientists and ask them if they feel that a psychological level of explanation is wholly superfluous. Biological levels of explanation are often very helpful in explaining psychological phenomena (e.g., perception, emotional disorders, caregiver attachment), but sometimes are at too fine of a grain to be useful in explaining/predicting phenomena. Try explaining complex problem-solving (e.g., scientific reasoning) solely in terms of neural synchrony, levels of physiological arousal, neurotransmitters, etc.. It’s a bit like trying to explain ecology solely in terms of explanations of cellular-level phenomena (artificial example, I know – just to make a point).

    2. The brain structure argument has two main weaknesses:

      1. Linking small differences in brain structure or biology to behavioral outcomes is problematic. Compared to the effects of differences in socialization and the immediate environment, brain structure accounts for very little in the way of direct behavior. What does a difference in the amount of Vitamin K have to do with anything? Are there differences? Yes. Are they important? Not generally.

      2. Brains are not rigid and stable. Just because the brains of men and women are different does not mean that these differences are genetic. Socialization and learning greatly affect the structure of the brain, and the brain is incredibly plastic.

      As a side note, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, genetics, and the like are even younger than psychology and sociology.

      1. @Joel,
        I agree that environment is a significant factor, but I would lena towards option (A): differences lead to the propagation of stereotypes. Where I find myself at odds with this blog is that I do not think there is anything wrong with that.

        The differences between the male and female brains are not small, and their impact on our behaviour is not small either. They are significant. Imagine you are shooting a laser at a wall 100m away. Adjusting the angle at your end even a tiny amount makes a big difference on the path the laser takes. Same principle applies to the brain.

        I agree entirely that the brain is plastic, although it takes incredible effort to realise this potential. People read that ‘brain that changes itself’ book (which I applaud for bringing the concept to the masses but I have issues with on how simplisitic it makes the issue out to be) and assume it comes naturally. I assure you it does not. It takes immense pressure to engage the plasticity of the brain in any real capacity. Even then, the brain is plastic in how it navigates a route, but limited in how it can alter the fundamental structure of the brain.

        As a side note, I realise my error in context earlier. Phsychology may not be in its infanncy from a historical perspective – I was tryint to suggest it is in its infancy from a maturity/robustness perspective. I chose the wrong words.

        Homeopathy is older than genetics. That doesn’t change the fact that genetics is real science and homeopathy is nonsense. Science is constantly discovering new and better alternatives. The advanced age of psychology does not add credibility; it highlights that the entire branch should be questioned at every turn (like all sciences). Fortunately, the questions being asked by psychology are increasingly being answered by neuroscience. I do not believe we will ever fully understand the brain or human behaviour, and I believe we will have to settle for a mix of phsychology and biology, but I believe the brain holds answers only neuroscience and biology will answer with confidence.

    3. You clearly do not study Biology enough, even at the simpliest level all life adapts to its environment… Even our brains. Please research more before revelling in your own falsely based confidence.

      1. You clearly do not study English enough. Even at the simpliest (sic) level you should be able to comprehend a phrase like “I agree entirely that the brain is plastic” and see that I know full well how adaptable the brain is. Please read more thoroughly before revelling in your own falely based confidence.

        1. Shane, given the typos in your comments here (including this one), you’re living in a glass house with your criticism of anon’s spelling. Since none of us can edit our comments, it seems petty to point them out.

          My quibble with your initial comment, though, is that you aren’t considering the statistical nature of the comparisons of men and women’s brains. None of the studies I’m aware of have concluded that *all* women have larger language processing areas in their brain than *all* men, or that *all* men have larger inferior parietal lobules (which seems to correlate with higher mathematical ability) than *all* women. Yes, most men may be at a disadvantage to most women when it comes to language skills, but do you really think Shakespeare had smaller Broca’s and Wernicke’s area?

          The science you’re referring to does not actually support your conclusion that boys’ brains are wired in a way that is unescapable. Yes, there are some hard-wired biological differences between men and women. But they are not absolute (i.e. they don’t apply to all men or women at an individual level), and they are often subtle. Your image of boys heading down a path laid out for them by their ancestors seems to suggest girls should be on a separate path. Isn’t it be to both boys’ and girls’ advantages to have multiple possible societally-encouraged paths, so that a boy who is good at language or one more interested in cooking or nurturing than battle, or a girl at the high end of the curve for rotational spatial awareness and other mathematic abilities, or one with higher aerobic capacity who excels at sports, can all have fulfilling lives, both as children and as adults?

          A book that may be eye-opening for you is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a critique of pseudoscientific accounts of sex difference.

          1. @Chris, my gripe was not with anon’s spelling, but his/her lack of comprehension. I clearly acknowledge that the brain is adaptable, yet he/she fails to see that.

            I’ve read Cordelia Fine’s work, which has been resoundingly shouted down by academics the world over due to her “barely veiled agenda” (Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, head of psychopatholgy at Cambridge University) and fundamentally flawed logic. She draws bows farther than any academic can or should. I would encourage you to read more broadly on the topic. After all, if we all base our opinions on one book per topic, I may believe that duck liver cures the flu, apricots cure cancer, the Queen is a lizard-alien, and we will all die in 2012. Her book is one of many on the topic, and the scientific consensus does not fall on her side of the debate. Her popularity is directly related to her controversy.

            @Chris AND Trix.

            Of course not *all* men or *all* women exhibit identical brain structures or behaviours or tendancies. And yes, not *all* humans share the same sexual preferences. This is a flawed argument, since this entire debate is being argued in generalities, since I would argue this is an issue best addressed at a population level. The author may have a son who prefers dolls to robots, and that’s fine. But if you took a million 6-year-old boys and asked them which they prefer, you would have 90% plus picking the robot. This is my point. Humans are tremendously adaptive, but we are also limited in our ability to escape biology. And in this case biology is on my side of the debate, not yours. As I stated earlier, I think society influences us, but only once we are already on a path predetermined by genetics and by biology. For some reason, the author appears to have a problem with this, when in reality it is the simple elegant beatufy of nature… tried, tested and proven over millions of years and completely immune to any modern feminist desire to paint all humans as absolutely equal.

          2. We’ve gone back and forth on this discussion many times, so I won’t repeat my basis for disagreeing. I will say though that citing Simon Baron-Cohen as a legitimate critic of Fine’s work is not valid. She is harshly critical of him in her book, so I doubt he would be capable of forming an objective opinion of her work. There may indeed be other critics of her work, but he is not the best one to cite.

            You said in a previous comment that there is scientific evidence to support both sides of this argument, and Fine presents a compelling case that was reviewed favourably by a number of critics (e.g. and that saw her receive a nomination for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, so she must have some legitimacy. I’m not saying she has the definitive answer, and neither is she. One of the conclusions she draws is that we just don’t know enough about the complex workings of the brain to confirm a link between the physiology of the brain and cognitive abilities or psychology of women and men.

          3. So if I cite Simon-Baron Cohen that’s not fair, but you feel it a transgendered person is objective in this debate? Interesting…

    4. “They’re attracted to healthy breasts and hips. They are more prone to aggression. …”

      In that lengthy list, you state these things as if all men universally have these attributes and all women universally do not. Apparently there are no gay men in this universe either.

      You somehow fail to observe that all of these biological sex traits occur on a continuum. Sure, men do tend to be physically stronger and women do tend to be more resistant to infections. But there is a lot more OVERLAP in any of these biological traits than there is difference. And that is true of just about any maker you care to name.

      Where the sociology of it comes in is the conditioning – to which you don’t seem to be immune – that assumes that these traits are much more sharply diversified than they actually are.

  2. I didn’t read your earlier post or, then, the comments so am just responding to this post. I liked this a lot:
    “By highlighting the words, I am trying to draw attention to the real issue: why do boys continue to be seen as interested only in things that smash, crash, and bash? The words here reflect the broader stereotypes held of boys—that they are aggressive, like a lot of noise and action, and are not suited to the more “domestic” toys targeted to girls.”
    I have two sons who are in their 20s and I tried to give a balance of toys related to their “gender labeling”, and definitely excluded (for a while) violent toys. Hard to say what difference it made but believe that it did.
    You said some commenters said marketing doesn’t matter. Au contraire. We see that it matters all the time with women and body image, why wouldn’t it work with toys? What I would also say is that it might take a generation or two of non-gender role marketing to change parents buying habits because we have been inculcated with years of such advertising.
    Thanks for the post.

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